“No my friend, darkness is not everywhere, for here and there I find faces illuminated from within; paper lanterns among the dark trees.” ~Carole Borges
Are there times when you are overcome by a sense of loneliness? Not just being alone, but that feeling of separation and isolation from the world around you? Do you have a longing for real and intimate connection?
When I was in my 20's, I moved from Atlanta to New York City for a job promotion. It was an exciting and heady time for me, moving to the Big Apple and working in the fashion industry. Every day I was surrounded by people — the neighbors in my brownstone, people on the subway and walking on the streets, my busy and crowded office building.
At any given moment, any time day or night, I could go to a club, to the theater, to a museum. There were always things to do and people everywhere.
But my first few months in New York were some of the loneliest in my life.
Yes, there were people everywhere, but they weren't my people. There were a million things to do, but nothing felt familiar or normal. The smells, the sounds, the way people interacted was entirely foreign to me.
Here I was, a young Southern thing in a pastel business suit, saying, “Hey, how are ya'll doing?” Those aloof New Yorkers in their monochromatic dark suits and severe haircuts looked at me like I'd just fallen off the potato truck.
If you are feeling lonely now or have bouts of loneliness — you are not alone!
In their book, The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-first Century, husband and wife psychiatrists, Jacqueline Olds and Richard S. Schwartz, point to an increasing trend of social disconnection, which is reinforced by our culture.
They point out census statistics like the dramatic rise in single-person households, as well as social surveys showing a rise in narcissism and a decrease in the number of meaningful conversations people report having with others.
Couple that with the American ideal of self-reliance; our overworked and busy lifestyles which leave little time for personal relationships; and the proliferation of communication technologies like cell phones and the Internet, and you have the recipe for an epidemic of lonely people who long for connection and intimacy.
As a blogger, I can see how technology can isolate people, drawing them into an alternative reality of cyber-relationships and information addiction. The more time we spend in this world, the less time and energy we put into our flesh and blood relationships.
We need real social relationships to survive. In fact, according to Psychology Today, “evidence has been growing that when our need for social relationships is not met, we fall apart mentally and even physically. There are effects on the brain and on the body.”
If our feelings of emptiness and isolation become chronic, we are at risk for some rather serious health conditions:
- Loneliness is a major precipitant of depression, anxiety, and alcoholism, as well as a higher risk of suicide.
- Loneliness raises levels of circulating stress hormones and levels of blood pressure.
- Loneliness impairs regulation of the circulatory system forcing the heart muscle to work harder and subjecting the blood vessels to damage.
- Loneliness erodes the quality and effectiveness of sleep, rendering it less restorative, both physically and psychologically.
- Loneliness leads to people experiencing higher levels of perceived stress, even when they are relaxing.
- Loneliness can negatively impact learning and memory.
Sometimes our behaviors and actions reveal our state of loneliness before we become consciously aware of how we are feeling.
Here are some of the symptoms of loneliness:
- Working excessively or spend excessive time on a solitary activity
- Low self-esteem
- Feeling isolated, like there is no one with whom you can communicate openly
- Feeling empty and sad
- Having a negative attitude toward life
- Feel shame and self-condemnation
- Not able to develop or maintain social relationships
- Lacking self-motivation
- Failing to initiate social contact
- Passing judgment on others
- Feeling that your needs are not being met
- Over-reacting to life events
- Passivity or pessimism
- Excessive time spent on the computer or in front of TV
- Feeling worthless, helpless, or powerless
- Being self-absorbed
- Feeling highly sensitive
- Being passive or pessimistic
- Feeling bored or self-pitying
- Having few or no friends
Do any of these symptoms resonate with you?
If you are feeling several of these symptoms or you have any one of them chronically, you must take action to bolster your relationship skills and address your essential needs for intimacy, connection, and interpersonal bonds.
You can cure your loneliness, but it does require awareness, action and sustained effort to feel re-connected to the world.
Here's what you can to counteract loneliness right now:
Awareness. If you see yourself in any of the symptoms described above, ask yourself the question, “Am I lonely?” Look again at the physical and emotional toll loneliness can take on you. Just being aware that you are suffering is huge step in addressing the problem.
Fleeting or chronic? Is your loneliness episodic or have you been suffering from it for weeks, months, or even years? We all feel lonely from time to time, but if you have been dealing with it chronically, you must admit that to yourself and take action.
Get support. If you are suffering from chronic loneliness, you probably feel like you don't have a support system. This is the time to find a good counselor to support you through the work of reconnection — and with addressing some of the emotional reactions you are experiencing due to loneliness.
Step away from the computer. Or back off of work or projects or whatever is tethering you to isolation and keeping you away from real human connection. Start slowly disengaging from these isolating activities, using the time to call a friend or spend time with your spouse, family member, or neighbor. You will need to initiate reaching out.
Stretch yourself. If you are shy by nature or more of an introvert, it is intimidating to put yourself out there and meet new people or even initiate contact with old friends. You will have to feel some discomfort initially, but if you take the first step in socializing, you will feel more and more comfortable over time. Try one small action that will connect you with others — attend a class, invite an acquaintance to lunch, volunteer, initiate a conversation at a meeting or party.
Use social media. But not just to hide behind the computer. Use Facebook or Twitter to connect with old or new friends, but then suggest a face-to-face interaction. Social media is a great way to connect, but it should be a vehicle for real relationships, not a substitute.
Quality not quantity. As I suggested in my own personal experience in New York, you can be surrounded by people but still feel quite lonely. It isn't the quantity of relationships that counts — it's the quality. We require more than just superficial interactions with acquaintances. We need deep, personal and close relationships. To develop those, you must be willing to share intimately with another person. You must be open so that others will be open to you.
Take personal responsibility. Be real with yourself. Life is what we make it. If you feel lonely, sad, depressed, or disconnected, the only person who can change that is you. If you need help in making that change, regard seeking help as a positive forward-moving step. If you need ideas for how to connect, just doing the research is a forward-moving step. But remember in addition to getting support and researching, you must take real action toward connecting with others.
Awareness of your loneliness can be a powerful tool for personal growth and profound positive change. When you recognize that your choices are to either remain lonely and unhappy or to take action (even if it's uncomfortable), then taking action becomes the only possible choice.
Every action you take toward connection will empower you and help lift the veil of loneliness, moving you to a new life of healthy, fulfilling relationships.
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